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The Connection Between Nutrition and Mental Health

Important connections to understand.

Key Points:

  • Nutrient deficiencies are implicated in many mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
  • Eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin D, and B vitamins may have positive effects on both physical and mental health.
  • If adequate amounts are not obtainable through food, supplementation may be a viable option.

In addition to medication management and psychotherapy, medical nutrition therapy is a vital adjunct to the management of mental disorders. This article will give a basic overview of nutrition recommendations that are implicated in various mental health conditions.

Essential Fatty Acids and Mental Health

Essential fatty acids make up two fatty acid families, the omega-6 family (derived from linoleic acid) and the omega-3 family (derived from linolenic acid). These fatty acid families contain substances that are critical for producing energy and processing body fats. They are also needed for the formation and function of cell membranes and the proper development of organ tissue.

alicja neumiler/Shutterstock
Source: alicja neumiler/Shutterstock

Omega-3 fatty acids are metabolized in the body into metabolic byproducts known as eicosanoids along with prostaglandins. Eicosanoids have been implicated in stimulating growth hormone secretion which promotes muscle growth. Prostaglandins such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) have been shown to regulate blood pressure, decrease blood clotting, and cause blood vessel dilation.

The consumption of omega-3 fatty acids can also affect your mood. Researchers who have analyzed epidemiological studies of several countries suspect that when smaller amounts of omega-3 fatty acids are consumed, the rates of anxiety and depression increase. Interestingly, omega-3 fatty acids may inhibit neuronal signal transduction pathways in a manner similar to that of lithium carbonate and valproate, which are two effective treatments for bipolar disorder. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been used in the treatment of ADHD in children, along with young adults in reducing minor and serious aggressive behaviors.

The United States Department of Agriculture, the United States Department of Health and Human Services Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the World Health Organization recommend a minimum of 250–500 mg combined EPA and DHA each day for healthy adults.

Essential fatty acids are also found in foods with high lignan content including flaxseed, soy and other beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and raw vegetables. If you eat several servings a day of these foods, you are likely ensured of obtaining an adequate supply of essential fatty acids. If you are not consuming these foods, consider supplementation.

Individuals who struggle with mental disorders require higher amounts of essential fatty acids. Also note that individuals who have bleeding disorders, managed on anti-coagulants need to avoid these supplements and moderate their intake of essential fatty acids. These individuals should consult with their primary care physician for advice regarding these recommendations.

Vitamin D and Mental Health

The vitamin D receptor and vitamin D metabolizing enzymes are expressed in the brain. Vitamin D is also involved in the neurobiological pathways, which may affect mental health. The active metabolite 1,25(OH)2D3 is thought to affect dopamine and serotonin concentrations in the body that regulate pleasure centers and mood, respectively. Therefore, because vitamin D is important to healthy brain function, insufficient nutrient levels may play a role in depression and other mental illnesses. If vitamin D is deficient in infancy, this may be implicated in schizophrenia.

Vitamin D is produced by the body when it is exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D is also added to milk and other foods, and is available in small amounts in fatty fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel; beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks. Supplementation is often needed for teens and adults as Vitamin D intake can be difficult to achieve with diet alone. The recommended dietary allowance is 4,000 IU (age nine and up). Infants require 1,000 IU daily. A total of 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure three days per week, which is often more difficult in the winter, is generally enough for the body to meet its vitamin D needs.

Folate, B-12, Other B Vitamins, and Mental Health

A high homocysteine level, also called hyperhomocysteinemia, can contribute to arterial damage and blood clots in blood vessels. High homocysteine levels usually indicate a deficiency in vitamin B-12 or folate. Adequate levels of B-12 and folate are required for the production of serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. Psychiatric disorders that may be diagnosed in individuals having B-12 deficiency include depression, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, psychosis, phobias, and dementia. Elevation of homocysteine in individuals with bipolar disorder correlates with lower levels of vitamin B-12 and folic acid.

Alcohol abuse is known to cause severe deficiencies in folic acid, along with vitamin B6 and thiamine (vitamin B1). Lack of these nutrients can result in anemia, resulting in the individual experiencing cold intolerance, lethargy, and dizziness, along with frequent headaches and shortness of breath. Thiamine deficiency is particularly dangerous, as it increases the likelihood of developing neurological conditions like Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

On another note, methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, or MTHFR, is an enzyme that breaks down homocysteine. The MTHFR gene that codes for this enzyme has the potential to mutate, which can either interfere with the enzyme’s ability to function normally or completely inactivate it. People have two MTHFR genes, inheriting one from each of their parents. Mutations can affect one (heterozygous) or both (homozygous) of these genes. There are two common types, or variants, of MTHFR mutation: C677T and A1298C. Symptoms vary both among individuals and depending on the type of mutation. People usually do not know that they have an MTHFR mutation unless they experience severe symptoms or undergo genetic testing. MTHFR mutations can manifest as ADHD and mood disorders. It is important for these individuals with MTHFR gene mutations to consume adequate folate along with vitamin D, B6, and B12.

Foods high in vitamin B12 include pastured eggs, nuts, beans. Folate-containing foods include broccoli. brussels sprouts, leafy green vegetables (such as cabbage, kale, spring greens and spinach), peas, chickpeas and kidney beans, and breakfast cereals fortified with folic acid,

Vitamin B6 containing foods include pork, poultry (such as chicken or turkey), some fish, peanuts, soya beans, wheat germ, oats, and bananas.

Thiamine (B1) containing foods include enriched, fortified, and whole-grain products such as bread, cereals, rice, pasta, and flour, wheat germ, beef, pork, trout, eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Many puzzle pieces contribute to mental health; nutrition is most certainly among these pieces.